[caption id="attachment_1498" align="alignleft" width="684"] A cartoonist depicts the battle between Republican William Taft and Progressive Theodore Roosevelt as they split votes in the election of 1912.[/caption]
The presidential election of 1912 is remembered in popular history as the last time there were three promising candidates running for president since the end of the Whig Party. Woodrow Wilson, the eventual victor, represented the Democrats, William H. Taft the Republicans, and Theodore Roosevelt, president from 1902 to 1909, ran by creating a new party, Bull Moose Party, a group of Republican defectors intent on placing Roosevelt back in the White House for a third term.
Ever since Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party split the base Republican vote between Taft and Roosevelt, mainstream Republicans and Democrats have taken care to not split the core vote of their respective parties. Now, over one hundred years later, the American people, in their dissatisfaction with Congress, are once again looking “off-menu” for other political parties.
With the 2014 midterm elections less than a month away, the media is abuzz with stories of third party “spoilers” that are popping up in races across the country.
As Congress becomes increasingly polarized and antagonistic, and the voting public increasingly disenchanted, the traditional two-party dichotomy of Democrat and Republican has come under fire. As dissatisfied as voters are, most third party candidates have no chance at winning, but they do have the opportunity to shift the political dialogue and more importantly, the votes.
In as many as seven states, third party candidates will decide the Senate races by taking valuable votes away from either the Republican or the Democrat. It is imperative to the political landscape that these third parties persevere, despite the power that mainstream parties currently wield. Third parties contesting elections should seek to empower individuals to vote for a candidate with whom their beliefs align, rather than one stagnant partisan option or the other.
Gallup recently reported that 58 percent of Americans believe that a third party is necessary to counterbalance the negativity of Democrats and Republicans. The prefered third party candidates are those who choose to forgo party affiliation altogether and run as independents, a strategic shift away from the increasingly unpopular mainstream parties. Nowhere is the Independent model working better than in the Kansas Senate race, which has Republican incumbent Pat Roberts running against Independent Greg Orman. And believe it or not, Orman just might win. There is a caveat though: the Kansas Senate seat is still only contested by two people, as a result of Democrat Chad Taylor’s dramatic exit from the race last month. Taylor said he martyred his campaign for the “greater good”: Republican defeat.
It is precisely this attitude that has the American people so exasperated with Congress; it is more important for someone else to lose than to stand up for one’s own agenda, foster debate, or even seek compromise.
Rational voter choice models provide one possible explanation as to why voters are hesitant to support independent candidates. The models show that voters act strategically, balancing their preferences with predictions about which candidate is likely to win. Voters wish to maximize the utility of their vote, and the utility of voting for a candidate who is unlikely to win is low.
It is encouraging that third party candidates persist in taking to the campaign trail in support of a wider range of political beliefs, but it seems like a step backwards for a mainstream party candidate to drop out of a race at the first sign of a split base. Many Americans default to party lines for more than just rational choice reasons: the time needed to research all the candidates is inconvenient when one can just connect a candidate to a party and the party’s policies. This only exacerbates the partisan split, as candidates are forced to align with one of the two mainstream parties in order to have any chance of winning an election. The American people should embrace a more thorough selection of candidates—one that is more candidate-focused than party-focused—to represent the vastly different views of the population, and embolden candidates to take a more independent stance in their platform.
Another prime example of the power and allure of the mainstream parties is Bernie Sanders, the longest-serving independent member of Congress, who may have plans to run for President in 2016—though most likely as a Democrat. Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist, and firmly believes that America needs to look to countries like Denmark and Finland, with their universal healthcare and free higher education, among other things, as models for what a modern, developed society should look like.
Why then would Sanders, with his far left-leaning platform, hope to run on the Democratic ticket, instead of the independent label that has served him so well throughout his political career? It all boils down to votes. In America, only the two mainstream parties get the votes in presidential elections. In fact, in 2012 third party candidates were not even permitted to participate in the national debates. The system is heavily canted to protect the interests of the Republican and Democratic Parties. Sanders is a very independent member of Congress, despite caucusing with the Democrats, so his platform cannot be fairly represented if he ran on the mainstream Democratic ticket. The only possible way for Sanders to accurately represent his progressive views would be to run on an independent ticket, but as he has said recently, he will only run to win. Unfortunately for Sanders, and the American people, a candidate only has the possibility of winning the presidency if he is aligned with one of the two mainstream parties.
The legacy of presidential “spoilers” looms large in the subconscious of the voting public, making it more difficult for an independent to run for president than for Congress, where third parties are more widely accepted, though still not popular. Ross Perot, a candidate in the 1992 presidential election, was the most successful third party presidential spoiler since Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party. Perot ran without party affiliations, earning over 18 percent of the popular vote nationally, and more than 30 percent of the vote in nine states.
Many feel that Perot drew more votes from the Republican incumbent, Bush, while other data show that he drew equally from both parties. His moderate campaign shocked the mainstream parties with its popularity, and the legacy of Perot’s impact remains a part of the collective consciousness of the voting public.
In a society where we are presented with a plethora of options day in and day out, it seems unnatural that there are only two viable options for any given political position. With the Republicans and Democrats becoming increasingly polarized, there are increasingly limited options for Americans. Third or even fourth candidates on the ballot would increase diversity across the political spectrum, allowing Americans to vote for candidates based on a broader range of topics. The surge of third party candidates in upcoming elections is a positive step toward a more diverse political system, but in order to protect these gains voters must discourage the likes of Chad Taylor from dropping out of elections for fear of “splitting” the vote.